"Brooklyn Castle," directed by Katie Dellamaggiore, is an inspiring and delightful documentary about an unlikely school in Brooklyn that breeds chess champions. The film is playing at the Harvard Exit.
The highest-ranked junior-high chess team in the country — winner of an unprecedented 30 national titles — isn’t ensconced at an elite private school. Instead, it’s found at Brooklyn’s prosaically named I.S. 318, an inner-city edifice where, the principal estimates, 70 to 75 percent of the students live below the poverty line. In Katie Dellamaggiore’s inspiring and delightful documentary “Brooklyn Castle,” we meet five of the team’s members and several of their teachers; by its end, you’ll be rooting for them all.
Like “Mad Hot Ballroom,” “Spellbound” and others, “Brooklyn Castle” follows a familiar formula: Underdog kids face obstacles as they prepare for a big competition. In this case, it’s the national chess championships, and the obstacles include the students’ personal stories as well as school budget cuts so severe that the chess program is in danger of extinction. Alexis’ immigrant parents put immense pressure on him to succeed beyond their own achievements; Rochelle struggles with being one of the few girls in a male-dominated sport; Patrick, who has attention deficit disorder, wonders if he’ll ever be good enough for nationals. Energetic, redheaded chess teacher Elizabeth Spiegel (Ms. Vicary in the movie; she married after filming) is their coach, mentor, cheerleader and giver of wisdom.
“Truth isn’t quite so simple as right and wrong,” she tells the kids; chess, it turns out, is a gateway to thought, and a terrific way for students to learn to focus and solve problems.
Along the way, we’re treated to the irresistible sight of hundreds of kids facing off two by two over chessboards in hotel ballrooms (the students look small but tough, like T-shirt-wearing gladiators) and, ultimately, a skinny middle-schooler clutching an enormous trophy. As each student’s drama gets played out, “Brooklyn Castle” pulls us in, and when it’s over you find yourself still wondering about the kids, and hoping they’re succeeding. It’s a charmer of a movie, and a welcome reminder of the importance of inspirational teachers in kids’ lives.
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Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org